Late last week, Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse tested positive for COVID-19, and then early this week, he tested negative. Rowse said he’ll re-test again on Wednesday and then consult with his doctor to determine to what extent he’ll make the ceremonial scene for this year’s Fiesta, the first to be held in three years.
Even if he tests negative, Rowse said “the optics” of showing up so soon after testing positive could prove distracting for some people. “A lot of people are talking about the optics,” Rowse said.
Rowse tested positive shortly after last week’s Tuesday council meeting. “I was never symptomatic; I was just being careful,” he said. “I’ve always been susceptible to sinus infections, and I’d come down with a slight case of the sniffles, so I thought I’d get tested.”
Rowse expressed some concern at the rate at which some people — President Joe Biden most notably — get reinfected shortly after having tested negative. “I’m really hoping this isn’t going to be like the Biden deal,” he said. Biden’s reinfection on Saturday is a rare case of a COVID “rebound” following treatment with the antiviral drug Paxlovid; Rowse also took the drug before testing negative.
Should Rowse opt out of his ceremonial role, it would fall to Councilmember Meagan Harmon, who is the council’s mayor pro tempore. Harmon has made a point of taking precautionary measures where COVID has been concerned since the birth of her son in December and has taken pains to avoid big crowds. Should she be tapped for the role of mayoral pinch-hitter, Harmon said she’s been on the lookout for Fiesta wear.
Two other councilmembers, Eric Friedman and Mike Jordan, are out of town on family vacations and will miss Fiesta. Rowse was not wearing a mask at last week’s council meeting. Rowse has downplayed the prospect that a mask would — or could — have made any difference given the extreme transmissibility of the latest variant.
“I know people who’ve done everything by the book, and they still test positive; I know people who do everything absolutely wrong and yet they stay perfectly clean,” said Rowse, expressing a sense of frustration and futility over a pandemic that still waxes and wanes after first striking nearly three years ago. “Are we going to do this the rest of our lives?” he asked rhetorically. “How many people do I see every day?”
In Santa Barbara County, COVID numbers continue to fluctuate, and for the time being, they seem headed in a downward trend. Where a couple of weeks ago, county health officials were reporting 50 new cases per 100,000, that number — as of July 29 — was 33. Again, with most testing taking place at home and going unreported, the reliability of any positive test counts is highly problematic. That being said, Santa Barbara’s numbers compare favorably with Ventura County — with twice as many residents — which posted 76 new cases per 100,000, but not so well against San Luis Obispo, which posted 9 new cases per 100,000.
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The key benchmark for health administrators now is impact on hospital beds. In Santa Barbara, local hospitals report 33 patients occupying hospital beds who are infected with COVID. Many of them are not there because of COVID, but for other causes. Of those, five occupy ICU beds. That leaves 22 ICU beds available.
What impact COVID will have on this year’s Fiesta — and vice versa — has yet to be seen. For Mayor Rowse, this would be his first time at Fiesta as mayor, having attended nine previously as councilmember. Rowse really experienced Fiesta as owner of the Paradise Café, one of Santa Barbara’s many ground zeroes for margaritas and stiff drinks during Fiestas past.
Rowse remembers Fiesta when it was still a contact sport and drinking in the streets was allowed. “Over-inebriated people with cascarones in the underwear” is how Rowse described the revelers, recalling how restaurant windows had a tendency to get broken in those “good old days.” When the parade was moved from Thursday afternoon to Friday — and street drinking was banned — Rowse said, the event got tamer and more lucrative from his vantage point. People actually ate food, he exclaimed, and a broader demographic — not just younger white males — showed up.
Perhaps the best movie ever made about Fiesta — Cutter’s Way — famously features a scene shot inside Paradise Café’s predecessor, a restaurant then — as now — called La Paloma Café. (Rowse bought La Paloma in 1983, shortly after that film was released in 1981, and then in 2019 sold it to another operator who redubbed Paradise with its original name.)
Cutter’s Way starred Jeff Bridges, who had not yet moved to Santa Barbara, as an unsuccessful wannabe gigolo sucked into a shake-down blackmail scheme to extort millions from that year’s El Presidente for the Fiesta parade. In that film, the El Presidente had dumped the body of a teenage girl he’d picked up for sex in a downtown dumpster. The film features an exquisite scene of the Fiesta parade coming up a State Street shimmering with the undulations of heat waves.
Correction: Some other members of the council were not wearing masks that day, not just Mayor Rowse.